There was a fair deal of shock in Turkey last weekend as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority, which it has enjoyed since 2002.
The AKP’s dominance has been legendary since then, having won local elections, Turkey’s first direct presidential election and two major constitutional reform referendums since then.
Yet, looking over the AKP’s parliamentary election results since 2002 shows a very odd pattern:
||AKP Votes %
||AKP Seats (Out of 550)
||AKP Seats %
The AKP’s greatest ever haul of seats was secured in 2002, when it won just shy of two thirds (enough to unilaterally change the constitution) of the seats in the Turkish Grand Assembly on only slightly more than a third of votes. It subsequently increased its vote to just under half of all Turkish votes in 2011 but actually managed to lose seats.
This year the party saw its worst performance since its first victory, and came eighteen seats short of the absolute majority it previously enjoyed.
Not very proportional representation
The bizarre relationship between seats and votes lies in Turkey’s odd electoral law. Like many countries throughout Europe in particular, and the world in general, Turkey uses a variant of list proportional representation. Again like many of those countries, Turkey imposes an electoral threshold that parties must pass to receive representation. These thresholds are generally implemented to stop extremist parties or to prevent too much fragmentation of parliament. Most countries use an electoral threshold of around 4 or 5%.
Turkey’s threshold however is the highest in the world – 10% (EDIT: This was reduced to 7% in March 2022). To put this into context, if Britain had used such an electoral system in our election this year only three parties – the Conservatives, Labour and UKIP, would have received representation.
The 10% threshold was imposed by the military authors of the 1982 constitution who had taken power in a coup d’etat. It is widely believed that their primary goal was to keep Kurdish minority parties out of parliament. Estimates of the proportion of Kurds in Turkey vary widely from between 10% to 25% and relations with the Kurdish minority are mired in controversy on both sides.
The threshold has had some bizarre results over the years. A particularly absurd election was the one in 2002, the first election the AKP took part in and where a strongly anti-establishment wave saw every party then in parliament fall below the threshold. Only two parties won seats – the AKP, and the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Parties such as the True Path Party which won 9.6% were left unrepresented. In fact, in all, parties representing 46.3% of all voters were excluded from the Grand Assembly that year.
The fall in AKP seats in later elections was largely due to an increase in the number of parties in parliament. The AKP and the CHP were joined by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in 2007. The main Kurdish party at the time, the DSP, also managed to elect 21 MPs by exploiting the fact that the threshold does not apply to independent candidates.
They increased this to 29 in 2011 – off the back of the highly successful Presidential campaign of their co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş they decided to run as a full party for the first time in 13 years this year, reaching parliament with 13.1% and winning 80 seats in their new guise as the HDP.
It was this that finally rid the AKP of its majority. To give an instance of how stark a difference the HDP made by passing the threshold by just 3%, consider this pre-election poll and simulation by the pollster Konsensus. With the HDP just passing the threshold, the projection would have had the AKP winning a majority of just 4. With the HDP falling just below the threshold the AKP would have won a majority of 112. That’s a big difference for just 3% of the vote.
The 10% threshold in Turkey is clearly an affront to democracy. It is arbitrary, can create massive proportions of wasted votes, and can create huge majorities on small minorities of the vote – on the basis of parties just failing to pass the threshold. What’s more, if the original goal was to deny representation to pro-Kurdish parties then as the results demonstrate, the system is no longer able to accomplish this. Democrats in Turkey rightly hope that it eventually be consigned to the scrapheap of history and replaced with a better system